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Discover Italy's south: Get lost in maze-like Matera; live like a local in ancient village of Grotto

The Italian city of Matera is this year's European Capital of Culture and visitors are flocking there for its swanky cave hotels, Airbnbs and restaurants

Toh Wen Li on 11 Aug 2019

The Straits Times


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If you visit the southern Italian city of Matera this month, you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Mr James Bond himself.


Daniel Craig and company will be filming the latest 007 movie in the ancient city of caves, which was also the backdrop to the Amazonian island of Themyscira in Wonder Woman (2017).


It is not hard to understand Hollywood's fascination with the historical Sassi of Matera - a labyrinthine network of tunnels, staircases and former cave dwellings.


Even today, the city - said to be one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world - looks like something out of a Biblical movie (and has in fact been a filming location in several, most famously Mel Gibson's 2004 The Passion Of The Christ).


Matera is also this year's European Capital of Culture. Tourists - the number has been growing in recent years - slosh into swanky cave hotels, Airbnbs and restaurants.


Today, the historic centre is something of an open-air museum - one you can live in. It is a far cry from Matera's old reputation as "the shame of Italy" - it became notorious in the 20th century for its poverty, unsanitary conditions and rampant disease.


Carlo Levi, an anti-fascist exile who lived in southern Italy in the 1930s, was famously struck by Matera's "tragic beauty".


Then, in the 1950s, the government passed a law ordering locals to move into modern neighbourhoods nearby.


After decades of abandonment, the Sassi was revitalised, named a Unesco World Heritage Site along with the Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera, and then given a boost by tourism and the publicity of Gibson's film. Most of the city's 60,000 people now live in the modern part of town.


Looking at the Sassi from the observation deck next to museum Palazzo Lanfranchi (Piazzetta Pascoli) on a clear day, I enjoy the postcard-perfect view of the traditional dwellings and streetscapes below, which appear as a stunning chiaroscuro of light and shadow.


Much of the old city has been carved and built out of limestone. Look closely and you will find the odd seashell in the city's sedimentary rock walls.


"The houses look small on the outside, but the whole city is like Swiss cheese - 20 to 30 per cent of it is built up and 70 per cent is dug out," says Matera resident Gian Paolo Buziol.


His wine bar, Enoteca Dai Tosi (Via Bruno Buozzi, 12), which he opened two years ago, is in a cave that is 30m underground at its deepest. It was once home to a family of 11 and their livestock.


Mr Buziol, 27, who is originally from northern Italy, fell under Matera's spell after visiting it as a teenager - fascinated by its history and power to transport the visitor back in time.


He notes that until about a decade ago, Matera's historic centre was relatively unfamiliar even to Italians.


"It was a no-go zone for kids," he says, referring to the Sassi's shadowy past.


"It was the dumpster of the city. If you had an old fridge, old tyres, you threw them in the Sassi. It was not something anyone was keen to show to the world."


Matera is supposed to be hot and dry in the summer, but during my nearly week-long visit in July, I experience several thunderstorms and even a bit of hail.


On days when it did get rather warm (up to 31 deg C), the cool interiors of the city's underground cisterns and the hallowed interiors of the Madonna de Idris church and Crypt of San Giovanni - both hewn from rock and adorned with centuries-old religious frescoes - were a welcome respite.


The old homes were constructed one atop the other. One man's chimney rises up through his neighbour's garden.


A former rooftop cemetery, with slabs marking the site of old graves, reminds me that here, the dead were once buried above the living.


Later, I walk past an old communal oven, which harkens back to the city's long tradition of bread-making.


I speak to Ms Mikaela Bandini, 47, who moved to Matera from South Africa two decades ago after she fell in love with a local.


A few years ago, she opened a space called Area 8 (area8.it/en). By day, it is an agency and production house.


When night falls, the space transforms into a cocktail bar. Celebrities such as American actor Joaquin Phoenix have been sighted there.


Matera, for Ms Bandini, has been a land of opportunity - not least because the competition there is less intense than in bigger cities.


But she is also concerned about the swift rise of tourism in the city and thinks tour buses should be taxed.


"It's rapidly becoming too busy. You have these peak weekends in which (the main street) is way too (congested). I think that should be regulated. I don't see why we should settle for mass tourism."


Mr Buziol adds that while there has been gentrification in the Sassi, where the rent is "sky-high", he feels that tourism is still the best way to revitalise depopulated areas, such as the nearby village of Grottole, which has seen the population of its historic centre shrink to 300 and has more than 600 empty homes.


He says: "Grottole is the new Matera, in the sense that it is still unknown (to the rest of the world). I think it is going to grow very slowly, taking its time."


• This trip was sponsored by Airbnb.




The ancient village of Grottole, in the heel of Italy's boot, has long seen its inhabitants leave in search of better jobs in the cities.


Only 300 people remain in the historic centre today and the village is in danger of disappearing.


To help Grottole turn the tide, Airbnb has launched a new three-month project - seductively titled The Italian Sabbatical.


In the past two months, five volunteers from around the world have been living among the Grottole locals and lending a hand to local projects.


Launched in partnership with local non-governmental organisation (NGO) Wonder Grottole, the initiative aims to generate publicity for the village at a time when nearby Matera basks in its status as this year's European Capital of Culture.


At the same time, it rides on the growing wave of experiential tourism where travellers seek out authentic, immersive experiences.


The five volunteers were selected from 280,000 applicants. The youngest is 24-year-old Filipino photographer Anne Tachado, who lives in Melbourne.


There is also 62-year-old Darrell Pistone, a retired firefighter from New York who recently found out that his grandfather had migrated from Grottole.


"And now I'm back. It's like a big circle," he says, adding that at least one long-lost Grottole relative, a second cousin, has since shown up at his door.


Grottole, or "Cryptulae" as it is known in Latin, is one of many villages in Italy's traditionally impoverished south whose populations started to shrink in the 1970s.


Grottole, which means "small caves", now has more than 600 empty homes.


My car ride to Grottole from the city of Matera takes about 30 minutes (it is also possible to get there by bus). As we approach the historic centre, after passing fields that would have once been dotted with shepherds and their sheep and cows, one of the first things to catch the eye is the feudal castle, which looms large in the legend of Selepino and Lady Abufina, thwarted lovers of their time.


Also prominent is the Chiesa Diruta, Grottole's main church once upon a time, before its roof is said to have caved in.


Today, all that remains of the 16th-century structure are its ruins - a tall, circular archway framing the clear sky above.


With the number of empty homes. I expect Grottole to be a ghost town, but it has got life in it yet.


As I walk around, elderly people stare at me from their balconies, but are congenial when I greet them with "ciao" or "buongiorno" (hello and good day in Italian).


Walking up and down the bumpy slopes grows tiring after a while, and I wonder how these older residents manage.


We encounter abandoned homes every so often. All that remains of one house is a brick wall attached to a porcelain sink that glints in the sunlight.


Elsewhere, a shadowy house, still intact, is filled with shattered glass and discarded furniture.


But there is nothing desolate or eerie about Grottole. I am struck by its provincial, understated beauty, and it comes across as a place that is taking its time, waiting patiently for something - perhaps its reawakening - to happen.


The volunteers, who live in local Airbnb houses, have been helping villagers turn local traditions into Airbnb Experiences - immersive activities such as bee-keeping, gardening and vineyard-visiting which can be booked online (www.airbnb.com. sg/s/Grottole--MT/experiences).


They are also working with Wonder Grottole to restore houses and design a new community garden.


The NGO's co-founders, Mr Andrea Paoletti and Mr Silvio Donadio, say their dream is to not just attract more temporary visitors, but to also repopulate the historic centre by developing new models for agriculture and tourism.


"In 10 years, we'd like to see the village full of people from different cultures perfectly integrated with the local community," says Mr Donadio.


The village is peaceful in the day. Birds that look like swifts race up and down the maze-like alleyways, while Johnny the stray dog paces the paving stones below.


In the afternoon, shops close for four hours. Conversations can last from 15 minutes to over an hour.


I cannot imagine spending my entire life in a village without a cinema, hospital or even a high school, but for many of Grottole's residents, there is no place like home.


"My family and friends are here. Everybody knows everybody. We don't lock our doors, we don't lock our cars," says teacher Michela Santangelo, 29.


When I return to Grottole the next day, I see the same familiar faces. As I help myself to a cup of gelato in a gelato bar, watching the world go by, I spy Ms Santangelo walking down the pavement. Later, on my way to the mini supermarket, I bump into Stefano the electrician.


With such a small cast of recurring characters, this is beginning to feel a bit like something out of a role-playing video game.


Grottole's mayor, Mr Francesco De Giacomo, tells me he is excited about The Italian Sabbatical.


Is he concerned that tourism may one day ruin the village?


He does not think so and suggests that the model of experiential tourism being promoted at the moment will attract the sort of tourist who is interested in taking time to understand the local culture.


Mr De Giacomo also hopes to attract more investors.


"We are offering the use of the castle for free to a private investor who wants to come here, adapt the first floor into a hospitality (space), and leave the ground floor as a place for the community," he says with the help of an interpreter.


One of the activities I get up to is pasta-making, which is offered as an Airbnb experience.


I quickly learn I have no real talent for it. My attempts to roll the shell-like cavatelli into shape - I was supposed to press a small rectangle of dough with three fingers and drag it towards me - fall flat.


"Piano, piano... con calma (gently... take it easy)," says the chef and culinary goddess Enza, her manicured fingers deftly rolling the thin rectangles into shells and flicking them off the side. Clearly, I have been trying too hard.


We also visit the beehives, a short car ride from the historic centre.


Rocco the beekeeper (who reappears later that day as the village barber) uses incense smoke to calm the insects.


They may be more easily agitated because of a storm the previous night, we are told, as we, clad in protective overalls, look on.


Rocco and two Italian Sabbatical volunteers give a potted introduction to hives and beekeeping.


"Was anyone punched by the bees?" one of our Italian hosts asks us later. (Pungere is Italian for "sting".)


The only person who gets stung is Rocco because he handles the bees with his bare hands.


Later, in the honeyed glow of late afternoon, I cannot help but pause to take photos. I end up straying from the pack and in my attempt to find them, I stumble straight into a small gathering of elderly people seated in an alleyway.


I am looking for Mr Mario Grilli, who tends to the community garden, I mumble sheepishly, pointing to the name in my notebook.


A kindly woman goes into the house to fetch her reading glasses. She recognises the name, makes a call and then leads me down-slope to the garden.


The much-talked-about hospitality and friendliness of southern Italians ring true here.


The volunteers - Ms Tachado from Australia and Mr Pablo Colangelo from Argentina - have found themselves shaped by the local community. They have gained an appreciation for fresh produce, taking regular siestas and slowing down.


"You know what they say with pasta - you treat it delicately," says Ms Tachado. "Similar to the life here, you don't pressure yourself, you don't rush into things, you take it slowly, you do things more efficiently that way."


Mr Colangelo, a 35-year-old software engineer, chimes in: "I used to be led by achievements - having things done, what we need to do, how we do it.


"But now, I feel more like talking to people, asking them what they need, if they really need it. It's very relaxed here. If something doesn't get done today, maybe tomorrow."


As I leave Grottole, chewing over these words, I recall my impatience with one of the gallery sitters in a museum in Matera, whose response to what I thought was a "yes or no" question unspooled into a 10-minute monologue.


Slow food, slow talking. City dwellers such as myself could do well to take a leaf from Grottole's book. As they say in Italy, fare con calma, take it easy.


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.



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